Making arrangements for the classical guitar

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Classical Guitar By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Guitar » Classical Guitar
Last updated: 07/05/2016
Tags: arrangement, classical guitar, transcription

Making arrangements and transcriptions for the guitar and other plucked instruments is a long established tradition. Already in the 16th century there were arrangements of polyphonic vocal music for vihuela and lute, possibly the most famous example being the arrangement of Josquin’s motet Mille Regrets by Luis Narvaez from 1538. During the Baroque era, especially in France and Spain, instrumental music was arranged for the guitar and lute. These arrangements were often made to fit the instrument, sometimes compromising and changing the melodies and harmonies of the piece.

In the 19th century as the guitar developed, the arrangements started being more faithful to the original compositions and thus more challenging for the player. A few examples of such arrangements are Mauro Giuliani’s versions of Rossini’s Overtures for two guitars, Johann Kaspar Mertz’s arrangements of Schubert’s Lieders, and Francesco Tarrega’s arrangements of Chopin’s piano works. I believe the main goal for these arrangers was to be able to play the pieces as beautifully as possible with the guitar whilst still maintaining musical ideas and material of the original compositions. These arrangements are an important part of the guitar repertoire. 

Today, almost all guitarists make new arrangements for their own use and to expand the guitar repertoire. As mentioned before, probably two of the most performed guitar pieces are Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 BWV 1004, and Asturias (Leyenda) by Isaac Albéniz which was originally written for piano. Most guitarists performing these pieces tend to make their own arrangements as well. As the guitar has developed over the years so have the arrangements. Sometimes this has pushed the instrument to its limits like in Kazuhito Yamashita’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This arrangement requires very high technical skills from the guitarist and there are only a few performers in the world who actually play it. 

When starting to arrange a piece of music for a new instrument, it is important to consider the most suitable approach. In my opinion there are three different ways to approach an arrangement:

  1. The arranger can be as loyal as possible to the original work and only change the material if absolutely necessary 

  2. The arranger can make the piece fit the instrument by adding, removing or changing material 

  3. The arranger can try to imitate the orchestration of the piece by means of colours and effects (as Yamashita did in his arrangement of the Pictures at an Exhibition) such as plucking the strings in different places for different timbres, special techniques like tremolos, rasguados and harmonics or using the guitar as a percussion instrument. 

However, most of the time an arranger does not solely use one of these methods but combines all of them. Especially when one is arranging orchestral and piano works for the guitar, it is necessary to make adjustments because of the limited range of the guitar. However, when arranging solo violin or flute works, one might want to add material in order to use the whole capacity of the guitar. In the end the most important thing is to make the composition sound as good as possible with the new instrumentation, even if it requires compromises and large changes. A good arrangement should always add something to the original composition and not be a poor version of it. 

When arranging a piece of music for the guitar it is very likely to run into some problems. Sometimes the limitations of the instrument become an obstacle, sometimes it is challenging to maintain a line or a melody and sometimes, even with many changes, the arrangement remains too difficult or simply does not sound convincing. 

The most common challenge for an arranger is to work with the range of the guitar, which is significantly smaller than for example the range of a piano. This often means we need to remove some material if it is not playable on the guitar. A good arranger naturally knows what can and what cannot be removed from the composition. Sometimes it is also necessary to rearrange the note material in order to maintain a melody or a bass line.

The construction of the guitar means that the same note can be found in different places on the fretboard. This can be seen both as a limitation as well as an advantage because the colour of the note changes drastically when played on different strings. An arranger or a performer often runs into this when thinking about the orchestration of the piece and making decisions on the fingerings. However, with the limitations of the instrument, one might need to play a chord in a certain position on the fretboard resulting with a poorly sounding solution that can also be out of tune.

Another problem to consider is playing legato and maintaining a note, especially while arranging string, wind and brass music for the guitar. As soon as a string is plucked, the sound starts to diminish and it is practically impossible to maintain it and even more unrealistic to make a crescendo. It is also impossible to play a similar legato on the guitar as a violinist can. However, a skilled guitarist can create a convincing illusion of legato. Slurring notes and playing campanella (playing passages using different strings and making it possible for the notes to sound on top of each other) can be used to achieve a satisfactory result.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge an arranger faces is to make the piece of music sound convincing on the guitar. If after finding a solution to all the problems concerning range, articulation, legato and other matters, the piece that has been arranged still does not sound good, one might want to question the arrangement itself.

So what kind of solutions can the arranger offer when facing these problems? The challenges created by the range of the guitar can be solved to a certain degree by using different scordaturas. The most common way to do this is by lowering the low E string of the guitar, but it is also not unheard to use other tunings either. Another solution might be to change the key of the piece. The most comfortable keys for the guitar, such as A major and minor, E major and minor and G major, are built on harmonies using open strings making use of the natural resonance of the instrument. This is what the use of scordaturas often also aims to achieve, changing the notes found on open strings.

There are many solutions to solve problems concerning long notes. During the Baroque era it was common to add ornaments when one wanted to maintain a note with a keyboard or a plucked instrument. This can be used on the guitar as well. Adding ornamentation does however mainly work in Baroque music and it is not always possible add an ornament. In these cases repeating a note or even playing tremolo might become a suitable alternative, allowing the guitarist to make a crescendo as well. Other solutions can be playing a harmonic, which leaves the note ringing without being pressed and frees the left hand, or adding vibrato, which helps the note sound a little longer.

There are various distinctive guitar techniques that can offer solutions in order to create orchestral effects and colours. Sometimes using a certain technique or colour can be helpful when attempting to achieve the sound ideal of the composition. Different types of tremolos, percussions, use of harmonics and using the vast colour palette of the guitar can bring new elements to the piece (a good example of this being the arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures by Yamashita). The only risk might be overusing these effects and forgetting the music itself. The use of any “guitaristic” technique should never compromise the intentions of the original composition. 






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